How did a culture as tidy and straitlaced as medieval Japan decide hara kiri was the way to go?

When I think of the types of things medieval Japanese culture has passed on to us—spare architecture, zen gardens, tightly controlled brushwork, tightly choreographed tea ceremonies, the careful discipline of various dances and martial arts … I have a tough time reconciling that with a suicide method as messy as disembowelment followed by beheading.

What’s up with that? How does such a restrained, neat, tidy culture as medieval Japan pick such a disgustingly messy suicide method as the preferred way? Why not throwing oneself from a cliff into the sea? Or death by poisoning? Or some form of strangulation? Not that any death is mess-free (there’s bound to be blood and some bodily fluids, no matter what…), but spilling your bowels all over the ground and then having your head severed by your buddy has to leave a stain on the carpets.

Well, originally and usually seppuku was used as a way to prevent capture, (because if you were a captured samurai, you’d likely be tortured to death) and since you were already on the battlefield with a sword ANYWAY…

they also practiced the messy beheading as a standard method of execution. As opposed to the tidier strangulation and so forth :slight_smile: Perhaps the messiness serves a purpose, especially in executions.

This is only a guess, but perhaps the beheading part is about certainty. I have read that the self-disembowelment might fail due to hesitation or pain, and who wants to lay dying, possibly for hours, in a pool of their own bloody entrails?

I can imagine that beheading by an assistant has at least a couple of benefits. You know that you won’t have to live (for long) with the shame of screwing up your suicide if you are unable to complete the first part. Also, the fact that someone is going to whack your head off shortly might perversely give you more confidence to do the disembowelment part better – you know you won’t have to suffer the pain for very long.

As for the disembowelment part – really, how many choices are there? There’s not always a handy cliff when you absolutely, positively have to die NOW. There was a midevil western tradition, I think, of falling on your sword, and I’m not sure if that’s a whole lot different.

Poisoning? Way too uncertain. We have trouble even today with lethal injections.

Actually, seppuku eventually evolved into a very neat form. An account of the ceremony by a European visitor from the 1800s (sorry, can’t find the book right now for a cite) describes various ways things were kept clean. The ceremony was performed in a small pavilion outside the main house. A white sheet had been laid down in the pavilion first to protect the floor. I think they also mentioned replacing the tatami mats afterwords. The main difference from the classical image of seppuku, though, was that there wasn’t actually a disemboweling. The man being executed just knelt, leaned forward, and touched a fan placed on the ground before him. (The fan symbolized the original sword or dagger.) Then a second man beheaded the victim. Ideally, the sword cut would not go all the way through the neck, but would leave a flap of skin holding the head on.* Still bloody, but not the same degree of mess as a disemboweling.

(*The traditional beheading move still exists as a stylized form in Iaido.)

Japanese medieval society was pretty darn brutal, especially pre-shogunate times. As mentioned, beheading was a standard form of execution, and the Japanese battlefield was a pretty messy place.

My pet theory that the charm of seppuku is that it’s extremely painful, self inflicted and done with the samurai’s own weapon. In a culture that placed extremely high value on face and honor, this was considered the neatest way to go, if one wanted to go honorably. Zen-Buddhist philosophy also plays a role in this.
Silly if you ask me, but no worse than anything people do today.

Would you mind elaborating on how you think Zen Buddhist philosophy may have influenced the seppuku tradition?

I’ve been to Idaho, and I’ve never seen this.

Oh, wait. Never mind.

Isn’t it very much about honour? I think there were very specific reasons for seppuku not just a my time to go thingy. As with most things Japanese, ritual means alot. The beheading, or nearly beheading which was the way it was supposed to happen I think, was simply to put the person out of their misery. I don’t think there was a lot of “spillage” as clothing would hold much of it in. Though I am sure it happened from time to time. Also missing the chop or getting only part of the head. ick

So honour-wise there aren’t many ways that would work. Hanging is brutal as you know if you have seen one. Poison is not an exact science either, not to mention it could take a while and would be as interesting to watch as watching someone read.

In comparison, having someone kneel before you, make a speech and then kill themselves with two sharp movements, followed by a expert beheading, is nearly perfect.

Well perhaps not for everyone.

Yes, and those specific reasons were usually either “I’m about to be captured by the enemy and tortured” or “I’ve committed a capital crime and will be executed.”

I have heard it claimed that the belly cut was designed to sever one of the major arteries leading from the heart to the legs. That would actually make it a fairly quick death.

Although the development of the assistant-who-beheads-you would indicate that a lot of people botched it.

Supposedly, one of the World War II generals refused the coup-de-grace, and “contemplated his entrails” for several hours, as a way of apologizing to his emperor. (Although I think I read about that in an Ian Fleming novel, so it is probably a myth.)

Yes, quite, see tsujigiri for another example of bizarre brutality that was perfectly accepted in Edo Japan.

“I sure hope that carpet is Scotchguarded.”

Or more likely “My lord needs a scapegoat to save face.”

My understanding is that while you’re correct that actual disemboweling largely went by the wayside, that fans were only substituted in cases where the samurai was distrusted (not the greatest idea to give a weapon to a man you’re executing, after all). In the more normal case the samurai would be expected to plunge the dagger into his belly, whereupon the coup de grace would be given. Having proven his willingness to kill himself, there was no need for the elaborate (and excruciating) disemboweling process.

I think tsujigiri is one of those practices that is far more common in fiction than it was in reality. I’m not convinced that it was ever really acceptable. It originated in the lawless Sengoku period and was quickly banned by the Tokugawa shogunate as soon as they things under control.

One thing to remember - samurai were originally head takers in battle, so the idea of a beheading in execution isn’t that far-fetched.

This could be Takijiro Onishi, who refused the beheading part and took 15 hours to die